The Thief

on July 17, 1998 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
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   An Academy Award nominee from Russia for Best Foreign film, "The Thief" is ostensibly a romantic retelling of the age-old tale of a search for a missing father. On a deeper level, it is also a shrewd look at Russia's post-war era and the gradual realization by the war's weary survivors that "Papa Joe" Stalin wasn't what he seemed and that all was not well down on the collective farm.
   In the closing days of the Second World War, a solitary young displaced woman, Katya, gives birth in the middle of a dirt road. Six years later she and her young son, Sanya, are still wandering, looking for a place to settle and someone to take care of them. On a crowded train traveling across country, Katya exchanges heated glances with a vigorous young army officer, Tolyan, and by the next stop, she, the officer and Sanya have become an instant family. Sanya, who has ghostly visions of the father he has never known, resents Tolyan's attentions to his mother, only to quickly discover the soldier's abrupt, violent temper, which Katya sanctions. The boy refuses to give in to Tolyan's stern demand that he address him as "Daddy," yet hesitantly grows fascinated by Tolyan's slick manner and tyrannical brutality. When Katya realizes Tolyan is no soldier, but a liar and common thief, she is bitterly disappointed, yet her inability to leave him taints Sanya and eventually leads to tragedy for them all.
   Mashkov brings an attractively repellent, earthy coarseness to Tolyan, who, resplendent in his officer's great coat, seems the ideal representative of a brave new world, the answer to the exhausted Katya's prayers. As a harsh, relentless father figure for the uncertain young Sanya, Tolyan also serves as an emblematic double for Stalin and his ruthless domination over a deluded nation. The film falls short as a romance, however, never achieving the depths for which writer-director Chukhrai clearly strives. Katya is almost annoyingly helpless and Tolyan's narcissism and vanity seem his only motivation for his extended involvement with this clingy woman and her petulant child. The result is a strained distance from the characters from which the story never quite recovers.    Starring Vladimir Mashkov, Ekaterina Rednikova and Misha Philipchuk. Written and directed by Pavel Chukhrai. Produced by Igor Tolstunov. A Stratosphere release. Russian language; subtitled. Drama. Rated R for some sexuality, nudity and language. Running time: 92 min.
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